ACLU History: Right to Remain Silent

Document Date: September 1, 2010

The ‘right to remain silent’ warning has become a familiar phrase in today’s popular culture, but it did not become part of the police vocabulary until two landmark Supreme Court decisions, Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966), established this important right. Once again, the ACLU was at the frontlines of the battle.

Escobedo v. Illinois established that criminal suspects have a right to counsel not just at trial but during police interrogations. The ACLU of Illinois argued the case before the Supreme Court, citing the police’s own textbooks on how to conduct aggressive interrogations. Also influential in the ruling was the ACLU of Illinois’ 1959 report on brutal police practices, Secret Detention, which Chief Justice Earl Warren cited in his opinion.

Miranda v. Arizona established that police were required to advise suspects of their right to remain silent, of the fact that anything they said could be used against them, and of their right to an attorney. ACLU of Arizona attorneys represented defendant Ernesto Arturo Miranda, and arranged for one of Phoenix’s largest law firms to argue his case pro bono before the Supreme Court. Notably, the Miranda case linked the Escobedo principle of a Sixth Amendment right to counsel with the equally important Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate oneself. After all, attorneys argued, if a defendant is too intimidated or ignorant to ask for a lawyer, he may well be coerced into incriminating himself during questioning. Thus, police were henceforth required to provide the ‘Miranda’ warning.

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